An interest in a program of pre-medical studies in college led a St. Louis Priory High School student to begin the nonprofit Bridges to America program to assist immigrants and refugees as they transition to life in the United States.
Sohan Kancherla's efforts helped other Priory students better understand migrants and the public policy issues that concern them.
"He is a warrior for social justice, cultural diversity and community," Nikki Lugo Hostnik, associate director of college counseling at Priory, wrote in nominating Kancherla for the Martin Luther King Jr. Model of Justice Award from the archdiocese. "He has been a force for change in our school community and in St. Louis."
Kancherla volunteered at SSM Health St. Mary's in pursuit of his interest in medicine. He met a patient, a Bosnian immigrant named Sophie, who told him about the issues and needs of that community. "I wanted to help them, talk to their community and see what I could do," he said.
Since Kancherla is of the Hindu faith, attending a Catholic school opened his eyes to aspects of faith and morality that are present in all faiths. "I like the ethical background, moral background and character that Priory instilled in me," he said. "That's been essential in my project."
He appreciates Catholic Church teaching. He noted that he was at Mass on Jan. 5 at Priory, the feast of St. John Neumann, who was a Redemptorist priest and immigrant who made a lasting impact on the Church in the 1800s by serving immigrants through education and other efforts. "It parallels what we're doing with Bridges to America," Kancherla said. "At a time when refugees are a topic that is so polarizing, it's great to see the Church's stance is consistent through the years."
Before founding the organization, he met with religious leaders and others in the Bosnian community. He quickly realized a need for winter clothing because so many migrants come from areas with a more temperate climate. The then-15-year-old sophomore organized a winter jacket and blanket drive.
His friends from Priory met with Bosnian leaders as well, and he connected them with the International Institute where Kancherla was a teacher's aide in citizenship and English classes.
"It's a two-fold interaction," Kancherla said of working at the International Institute with the immigrants and refugees. "We help them with parts of the oath of allegiance and U.S. history questions but also we're reminded of the (depth) of diversity that St. Louis holds and that we need to embrace it. It's one of the brightest parts of our city."
He also organized Priory students to volunteer at the annual Festival of Nations event held in Tower Grove Park in St. Louis, a multicultural celebration of ethnic food, dance, music and arts and crafts. They surveyed festival-goers about their experiences with the refugee population in St. Louis and how to increase awareness of the festival and helped with recycling of leftover items.
Working with Priory's administration, he started a speaker series at Priory that invited immigrants and refugees to tell their stories of the difficult process to come to the United States. "Our message is that diversity is important, no matter where you come from in the world. It's what makes us as humans so special," Kancherla said.
One of the speakers, Muhamed Drinjak, told of coming to St. Louis as a refugee from Bosnia when he was 12 years old. He started a business at age 19 transporting medical supplies. To Kancherla, sharing the stories of immigrants is important.
"If you didn't meet a new citizen before, all you have is this black-and-white image or buzzword," Kancherla said. "I thought, 'If my friends could do this, imagine the difference it would make."
His grandparents came from India and told him they went through a difficult vetting process but once they arrived, the St. Louis community was welcoming. "I want to be a part of that," Kancherla said. "The problem transcends time. Even though our society has an awareness of how immigrants and refugees need support, we have to have activities to support that."